The city of Red Wing is considering a resolution that would officially change the name of the Columbus Day holiday to First Peoples Day.
The proposal is the work of the city's Human Rights Commission, and especially commissioner Scott Bender, a 50-year-old high school history and social studies teacher who characterized Columbus Day as "just a disgusting honorarium to a man who so grossly violated the modern standards of human rights."
"A lot of people will say, 'Well, you're just judging him by the standards today,'" Bender told us. "That's not true. [Columbus] was put on trial in his own day by people that thought he crossed the line in abusing and mistreating the native people he was running into. It was his own people who put him on trial."
While a number of states, including California and Texas, don't observe Columbus Day, Bender said he believes Red Wing would become the first municipality in Minnesota to rename the controversial federal holiday. (City and labor contracts wouldn't be affected, meaning Red Wing workers who usually have Columbus Day off would still have First Peoples Day off.)
Bender, a seven-year Army veteran who describes himself as "Republican leaning," said his hope is that if the Red Wing City Council approves the change, "other city councils around the state will think, 'That's an idea whose time has come.'"
With regard to the First Peoples Day name, the resolution points out that "Red Wing's First Peoples settled several town sites in the area which, at their peak, made the Red Wing area one of the most densely populated areas in North America" before those people "suffered abuse, forced eviction and near-genocide at the hands of the greater American society."
But the First Peoples "persevered, recovered and rebuilt their communities to once again become an integral part of Red Wing society," the resolution continues.
The Human Rights Commission will meet with City Council members tonight at 5:30 for a workshop during which Bender hopes to allay any concerns councilors might have about the proposal ahead of a formal vote.
Asked how likely he thinks it is that the resolution will be approved in time to change the name before this year's October 13 Columbus Day holiday, Bender said he's "hopeful."
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"We as a Human Rights Commission in the past have had a little bit of a tiff with the City Council because they have dodged some political things, like the gay marriage amendment," Bender said, adding that while the commission wanted the city to take an official stance opposing the marriage amendment, the council refused.
"But there are City Council members who flat out said they would support [First Peoples Day] and others that said they want more information and don't [want to vote] based just on my word or the work of the other Human Rights Commission members," Bender added.
Bender pointed out that Columbus Day is relatively new as far as federal holidays go. It was first celebrated in 1937, and at that time, it made sense "given the limited access to research materials and with fascism and communism and the Cold War and all that," he said.
In that sense, the fact that Red Wing officials are taking the First Peoples Day resolution seriously is a sign of progress, Bender suggested.
"If I had been teaching 50 years ago no way I could've talked about this stuff," he said. "I would've had federal agents knocking at my door."